Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Hobbit

The Hobbit; or, There and Back Again
© 1937 J. R. Tolkien. Collector's edition published 1966.
317 pages

In the middle of the Earth, in the land of Shire
Lives a brave little hobbit whom we all admire
With his long wooden pipe,
And fuzzy-wuzzy toes,
He lives in a hobbit-hole and everybody knows `im

-- Bilbo! Bilbo Baggins! He's only three feet tall!
Bilbo! Bilbo Baggins! He's the bravest little hobbit ever known. (
"The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins"*)

I've heard of Tolkien all of my life: the author himself has been lost to legend, his name used to describe things as "Tolkienesque" or "straight out of Tolkien". As a child and middle-schooler I attempted to read The Hobbit two or three times, even checking out a version of it rendered in comic book form. After reading The Two Towers in high school and remembering my unsuccessful efforts to read The Hobbit, I decided that fantasy was not for me -- amending this to "magicical fantasy" after I remembered the Redwall series.

Probably inspired by my recent reading of Asimov's Magic, containing a complimentary essay on Tolkien, I decided to pay his books a visit after learning that The Last Olympian -- the final book in the Percy Jackson series -- had been checked out just before my arrival. Remembering that The Hobbit precedes the Lord of the Rings trilogy, I decided to go with it first. And so, on a lovely rainy day that was ideal for reading, I began it again. Our hero is Bilbo Baggins, a three-foot-tall hobbit from a respectable family who is not the adventuring type. On one peaceful morning, however, he is visited by an old wizard named Gandalf who more or less drafts him to join a group of dwarves on a dangerous quest to kill the dragon that drove their ancestors from their mountain-castle and who now terrorizes the dying countryside when he isn't napping on a mountainous pile of treasure.

Bilbo is not very inclined to do this, but he seems to be compelled by a sense that his fate is sealed -- as well an oh-so-slight curiosity in the idea of adventure. Neither of these are enough to make him excited about the adventure: indeed, he starts it off late, having to catch up with his dwarven companions. Thus begins a perilous adventure in which Bilbo is forced to fight or flee from all manner of magical beasts, who are very unpleasant people for the most part.

(For the record, I had this song playing in my head the entire time I read the book.) As Baggins journeys -- and especially after Gandalf parts company -- he learns to appreciate the adventurous leader within him, and the dwarves who once sniffed their noses at him as a grocer give him a grudging respect and become increasingly dependent on his leadership. Bilbo, despite having shucked off his hobbit's cloak and put down his pipe for chain-mail and a sword, is often terrified and miserable with confusion when he and his traveling companions manage to find themselves predicaments. The book ends happily, although not with the ending I'd expected and not without Bilbo having to make risky decisions.

The book is written as though it were a story being told -- read aloud, not digested silently in a library somewhere. Although the story-teller's view seems at first to be third-person and omniscient, he slips into first-person at least once and addresses the reader directly, reinforcing my impression of it as being a delivered story. It's an enjoyable approach. The book is quite enjoyable: I'm not sure why it eluded me in my younger days. Despite this, I'm not sure that I'll continue with the Trilogy: I have watched the first movie and I found it...not too engaging. Still, I won't rule it out. Knowing as I do how movies rarely do books justice, it would be foolish of me to not read a book based on its movie.

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I first saw this video probably six or seven years ago. I found it attractive enough to merit downloading several times on dial-up. You can watch the extended black and white version here, or the shorter but in color version here.

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